Underworld Ascendant Interview -- Director Discusses Player Choice, Realized Worlds, and Influences
Game Director and Writer Joe Fielder discusses OtherSide Entertainment's upcoming immersive sim Underworld Ascendant, as well as his career in the industry.
The upcoming game from developer OtherSide Entertainment and publisher 505 Games, Underworld Ascendant, is a follow-up to the incredibly influential game Ultima Underworld. Known for ushering in the immersive sim genre, this 26-year-old game has influenced beloved titles such as BioShock and Minecraft. Underworld Ascendant attempts to bring the magic of its predecessor back truly giving the player the choice of how they want to play.
At E3 2018, we sat down with Underworld Ascendant‘s Director and Writer Joe Fielder to talk about the upcoming game, as well as some of the influences the team has had during development as well as Fielder’s career in the industry.
Michael: To give the readers some background on who Joe Fielder is, could you give a brief synopsis of your career in the industry?
Joe Fielder: I started off as a game journalist working at EGM and GameSpot. About 15 or 16 years ago, I made the switch over to level design and started off at Electronic Arts on the Medal of Honor series; I was one of the writers on BioShock Infinite, I was a writer for Star Wars: Battlefront II. Yeah, so I’ve jumped around a bit.
M: So you could say you’ve been in for a pretty long time now. How have you adapted to modern game design over the years?
JF: One of the things that are a real inspiration for us as a studio is the legacy of innovation from Looking Glass. A lot of those games went on to really influence so many games. We are, of course, following the footsteps of the original Ultima Underworld. Some people say it’s the first immersive sim but we’re following up on the elements form that game and also trying to make good on the legacy of innovation that game and Looking Glass had.
We’re really pushing ourselves to look at areas of games we would like to see different. Elements like the evolving nature of the game. If you look at a lot of modern RPGs, there are very very large environments but they’re static. You go back to an area and you’re lucky if there is another enemy repopulating there.
In our case, we have a smaller overall footprint but the world is constantly changing and evolving; new movement options, new challenges. There is a degrading world state, so over time, the creatures from the lower abyss crawl up and repopulate the world. So, everytime you return to an area you can have a very very different experience. That was one of those things we would love to see in games.
M: Is the world procedurally generated?
JF: It’s not really procedurally generated. More designer curated. There are a lot of elements of modern board games that do repeatable, playable spaces that we’ve taken some inspiration from. It’s kind of like a designer said, “hey, here are some interesting movement options, here are few different configurations, and we also have to make sure there are different caches of useful items that may or may not appear there. There are different and useful flora and fauna that appear like the glueballs you saw in there. You can stick them to a wall, stick a crate to it, and jump on top of it; you could gum up a trap with it.
M: Oh, I didn’t know that. [laughs]
JF: Yeah, there’s a lot to explore. There is even a creature called the Deep Slug that you’ll sometimes see in the Ruins of Gwern; it’s minding its own business and is a peaceful creature but it leaves a flammable trail and you can bait it. So, you can make a trail into an enemy’s path or light anything wooden on fire. There’s a lot of fun tools at the player’s disposal.
M: You mentioned that this is a follow-up to Ultima Underworld. That game is now over 20 years old at this point. What made you want to go back to that series?
JF: It’s something that one of the founders of our company, Paul Neurath, worked hard to get over the years. It ended up in the company vault but he was able to pry loose some of the rights for that, as well as for System Shock. It’s such an amazing world, the Stygian Abyss. It had such an amazing sense of place, even for an earlier game. My old boss, Ken Levine at Irrational Games, mentioned that it was an inspiration for BioShock. You can really see some correlations between the Stygian Abyss and Rapture. It’s really fun for me as a writer to return to and help flesh out and expand the mythology around the Stygian Abyss.
M: You had mentioned that Ultima Underworld had been influential to people like Ken Levine. I believe I saw Chris Roberts, who is currently working on Star Citizen, has also been quoted.
JF: Notch from Minecraft too, which is amazing.
M: Definitely. While Looking Glass has influenced others, what else has influenced the studio while making Underworld Ascendant?
JF: I learned a lot from working at Irrational Games and the BioShock series about narrative from working with Ken, and the sense of place. Obviously, games that Looking Glass worked on like Thief are a big influence. It’s really disparate. There’s a lot of fantastic modern board game design. Games like Eldrich Horror and Mansions of Madness that do repeatable narrative in really interesting ways. I’d say we’re influenced by the games that came before as well as what we’d like to see in games. We are always looking out for interesting challenges as developers.
M: We mentioned before how Ultima Underworld pushed gaming to new heights. How is Underworld Ascendant going to emulate that kind of feeling of pushing the medium?
JF: One of my favorite things I loved about the original, Ultima Underworld, was the freedom. They had eight levels within the game. Each level, as you got deeper, had tougher the creatures, but the rewards were greater.
You really had a player-directed difficulty. It was really up to you how difficult you wanted to make the game. In our game, we have something similar. When you enter the quest hub, you always have a choice of three different quests, one from each of the conflicting factions. They vary from the level of reward, difficulty, which faction you’re representing, and more. So, you have a choice of being ingratiated with a faction or getting a really great sword that is at a deeper level.
But even within the level itself, you are rewarded for creativity and pushing yourself. So, if you want a greater reward, you might see how you can experiment with combat and stealth or stealth and magic or using stealth and luring enemies into traps. It’s really up to you how tough you want to make it.
Early in my career, I remember working on gaming magazines and between deadlines trying to play Wolfenstein 3D just using a knife; I got to the first boss. I’ve played through Tenchu completely unseen, things like that. In our game, you can play the game without being seen at all. You can play through completely peacefully. It’s completely up to you. The game is completely about player choice.
M: Yeah, so there aren’t any character classes or things like that?
JF: No. Like I mentioned, you’re free to customize your character any way you want. There are literally dozens of different skills and abilities; some of them very involved like the dash skill that’s used to teleport around. It’s not just “+1 to your sword” either. They have a real impact on how you play.
M: What have been some of the challenges you’ve had to overcome while developing Underworld Ascendant?
JF: I mean, in general, games are hard to make. Immersive sims are even tougher to make than the “theme park ride” game where you have a very specific experience that you want the player to have.
In our case, we want you to experiment and use all of our tools and abilities in ways we haven’t thought of. So, that has its own unique amount of challenges. It’s great watching people play and see the player’s expectations of lighting an arrow on fire lead to lighting a door on fire. Sometimes, those things will just work. Sometimes, we have to make sure that they work.
Actually, one of the neat examples we have, we had a professor from Emerson that teaches the game program come out. She picked up a glueball and threw it right along the seam of one of those tic-tock traps and it froze into place. We were like, “we didn’t know you can do that.” She thought it made total sense. It just worked and it was great. [laughs]
Sometimes things just work. Sometimes we have to make sure they work. We’re doing a lot of testing right now.
M: This whole game is about player choice and player agency; you can play however you want to play, in a sense. What do you think is the worst way to play it?
JF: I feel that if the player runs through, taking a lot of damage, just using a sword, I’ve probably failed as a developer. I really want to make sure that the player is inspired to explore the real depth of the systems. I feel like a lot of the real die-hard, long-term Looking Glass fans have the patience to discover some of the depth of the systems. We want to make sure the player can get to that depth without any hand-holding.
One of the big challenges for me as a writer and developer is how to teach people how to think because they have been so inundated with “follow this quest path, here’s the exact item, go get this thing.” We want you to think about what you’re doing and explore. That’s been a challenge.
M: I know for me, as I was playing, I wanted to be more sneaky when I wanted to do something, so I started using the water arrow to extinguish flames; the game does tell you about that though. I also started using the wall running to get around too which I really liked. I was told it’s getting improved but it felt really good.
JF: Great! Yeah, we really want combat to involve you taking advantage of the environment, a lot of movement, not just you standing there chopping wood like in a lot of first-person games. We want the combat to be challenging enough where it inspires you to make a plan; either you’re using stealth to ambush them, you’re using magic get to just the right spot, the environment, or you just want to build up my combat skills and just dive in. We’re really trying to support all those choices.
M: Is there anything you want the audience to know about the game? Anything they may not know or maybe want to know about Underworld Ascendant?
JF: Beyond wanting the players to have a lot of options for how they play the game and trying to inspire them to explore, we really want to have a game that you can play multiple times and have a unique experience every single time. One of the challenges for me when writing is making a game that reacts to all of your choices and has unique consequences. It will take you multiple playthroughs to explore all those options and uncover all the mysteries.
M: You’re talking about multiple playthroughs, how long do you think it would take to complete one playthrough?
JF: You know, it’s hard to say. I mean, if you wanted to sneak through a level without being seen, manipulating characters to walk into traps, and things like that, playing one quest might take you 45 minutes or an hour. But if you want to be more combat focused, it might take you 20 or 25 minutes. If you’re really pushing yourself to explore, I think you’re going to have a lot more fun and a lot more hours. So, it can vary widely from playthrough to playthrough.
M: Do you think we’ll see the game sometime soon? When are you aiming for release?
JF: We’re targeting September. We’re actually just about to release two levels to our backers from Kickstarter and we’re going to get a lot of feedback from that. We’re going to be doing a lot of external testing. We’re going to make sure to take the time to do it right.
M: Are you looking to release on consoles or sticking to PC?
JF: We’re releasing the game on PC, Mac, and Linux. Consoles would be something I would personally love to see. I like playing games from my couch but we don’t have anything announced today.
Underworld Ascendant is still slated to come to PC, Mac, and Linux in September of this year. If you want to learn more, you can check out the announcement of the partnership with 505 games, and the first trailer.